Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Giant’s Shoulders #21—History of Science Blog Carnival

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/16 at 10:13 PM

This latest edition of The Giant’s Shoulders celebrates the birthday of Caroline Herschel who was born on 16 March 1750. In the early 1770s she moved to Bath to join her brother William. Initially she helped him teaching and performing music. On 13 March 1781, just before Caroline turned 31, William stumbled across a new planet, Uranus. Shortly after this, William gave Caroline her own telescope, which she put to good use updating star catalogs, discovering three nebulae and another eight comets. By 1787 King George III had awarded her an annual salary of £50 to work as William’s assistant, making her perhaps the first professional female astronomer.

Caroline Herschel — Comet Hunter (Source: We Are All in the Gutter)

I feel like William Herschel here. I couldn’t have compiled this list of posts without the underpaid assistance of others. They deserve the lion’s share of credit for this edition of The Giant’s Shoulders. In alphabetical order, they are: Eric Michael Johnson at Primate Diaries, GG at Skulls in the Stars, Michael Barton at The Dispersal of Darwin, Romeo Vitelli at Providentia, and ThonyC at Renaissance Mathematicus

Without further distraction, here are the posts, arranged roughly chronologically:

1450: “Prester John” was the mythical, Christian king who ruled a rich nation at times thought to have been in India, Central Asia, and, according to Portuguese explorers, Ethiopia. Michael Robinson over at Time to Eat the Dogs reminds us how powerful myths can be in motivating and guiding early European exploration. Robinson’s post summarizes and points to a promising looking thesis by Michael Brooks: “Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion

Prester John as King of Ethiopia(Source: Map for Queen Mary (1558) from the British Library)

1560: “It wasn’t the First but …” reviews the early history of scientific societies. Contrary to common claims, as the post shows, the Royal Society is neither the first nor the oldest scientific society. Three Italian societies are considerably older: Accademia dei Segreti, Accademia dei Lincae, and Accademia del Cimento. The Royal Society even fails to be the oldest surviving scientific society, an honor that goes to The Leopoldina (1652). Perhaps the nicest part of this post is the link to Scholarly Societies Project

1614: “Galileo Backed Copernicus Despite Data” in Nature News points out that in 1614, and presumably in 1610 too, observational data supported not the Copernican system, but the Tychonic. At least, this is the conclusion physicist Christopher Graney comes to after reading Simon Marius’s Mundus Iovialis (1614). Both Marius and Galileo were duped by diffraction patters in their telescopes into thinking that the fixed stars were much closer than the Copernican system required. (This article is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.)

1619: “Oh Happy Day!” is a nice little post pointing out Kepler’s third law of planetary motion, which Newton later demonstrated as particular case of his inverse square law of gravitational attraction.

1670s: “Refraction, Refrangibility, Diffraction or Inflexion” follows the early discussion of diffraction from the Scottish mathematician James Gregory to Isaac Newton’s early paper on the nature of light and finally in the Queries at the end of Newton’s Opticks, published in 1704.

1732/1794: “Medical and Liturgical Cardiac Pathology, 18th Century: Scarpa & Senac vs. the Throne of Satan” looks at three books published in the 18th century and compares illustrations and descriptions of the heart in each: one is a physiology text, another offer an anatomy of the heart, and the third presents a spiritual physiology. In this last the heart becomes the throne of Satan.

The heart as the Throne of Satan

1733: In “Can You Solve this Nearly 300-Year-Old Medical Mystery?” Eric Michael Johnson unearths a letter by Mr. John Powell regarding a strange medical anomaly. The letter, which was published in the Philosophical Transactions, describes a woman who “has for this considerable time voided one or more of these hairy crustaceous Substances every Day or Night….” The post details Powell’s letter and concludes by speculating about a possible diagnosis. The comments are a treasure trove of detective work, with a few plausible and one rather plausible diagnosis (no spoilers here—go read the post)

1845: “Phrenology of a Monster” is another paleontology post by Brian Switek. This time, the amateur fossil hunter Albert Koch found the remains of a sea monster, which he brought back to New York City. The 114-foot-long monster, called Hydrarchos, looked to be a skeleton of the Leviathan itself. But like so many such monsters, it turned out to be a forgery, a patchwork of other remains stitched together to look convincing.

An engraving of Koch’s “Hydrarchos”, from the American Phrenological Journal.(Source: Laelaps’ post)

1870: “The Bedford Challenge” tells of a public wager to prove that the earth is round. Published in Scientific Opinion, the wager offered £500 to anybody who could convince the author, John Hampden, that the earth was not flat. Alfred Russel Wallace apparently took that bet, and lost. The story holds a number of lessons about choosing your battles wisely and the influence of beliefs on interpreting observation evidence.

1870s/1880s: “Darwin and Spencer in the Middle East” analyzes two recent articles on Darwin to think about the relationship between Darwin’s work and its social applications. Looking at how Darwin’s work was appropriated by science enthusiasts in the Middle East, the post concludes by suggesting that the standard claims about the obvious social and political nature of Darwin’s work need to be refined in light of the effort Arabic scholars had to exert to enlist Darwin’s text in their political agenda.

1884: “A WTF Scientific Paper from Edinburgh, 1884” recalls the simple pleasure of reading old journals. This letter to the Royal Society of Edinburgh describes a strange occurrence in which a “sheet of flame” burst across a room, nearly destroying the room but harming nobody. To appreciate the letter you must go read the entire piece.

1899: “Perpetual Motion—Nonsense for Over 100 Years” uses a comment to an old post on perpetual motion as a chance to remind reader that perpetual motion is a dream, like the fountain of youth. The only part of perpetual motion that seems perpetual is the dream that it might work, followed closely by the “overbalanced wheel” as the most likely candidate for achieving the dream.

The Overbalanced Wheel from Villard de Honnecourt, circa 1230 (Source: Perpetual Motion—Nonsense for Over 100 Years)

1906: “Medicines for the Faithful” offers a possible explanation for the continued success of the Peruna patent medicine company, even after the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906. Unlike other patent medicine companies, Peruna seems to have capitalized on traditional beliefs, especially astrological belief systems, in marketing its medicines to Amish and Mennonite communities. These same communities were skeptical of the scientific developments in medicine and resisted governmental imposition of medical and food regulations

Hartman’s general description of horoscopes as useful for guiding an person’s life. At the end Hartman offers free astrological consultation to any reader who sends the “date of birth and sex” to the Astrological Department (Source: Peruna Almanac (1907), 28.)


1907: “A Baby Mastodon Deathtrap (?)” recalls William Jacob Holland’s and O.A. Peterson’s excavation of fossils in a quarry near Frankstown, PA. They soon discovered a veritable graveyard of young mastodons, deer, and predatory bears in a cave that had been sealed off for thousands of years. Holland suggested that giant bears used the cave as a lair, much like saber-tooth cats had. Unfortunately, this question requires further investigation.

1930: “Uranus-Lowell-Pluto” looks at the early rhetoric around the discovery of Pluto. Whereas today Clyde Tombaugh plays a central role—the tireless autodidact from Kansas makes good on his passion—the first announcements all but efface Tombaugh’s role. Instead, these early announcements are paeans to Percival Lowell and his intellectual efforts to calculate the object into existence.

1932: “Bombing and the End of the World” is another post over at Ptak Science Books (see also 1732/1794 and 1953/1957). This post points to all the developments, scientific and not, that occurred in 1932. The year turns out to be important not because of any single development, but because of the collective list of achievements: “Carl Anderson identified the positron while James Chadwick discovered the neutron; also, the Joliot-Curies’ made their monumental discoveries in radiation. Iwanenko described the neutron as a constituent of the nucleus, while Heisenberg described the nucleus as composed of protons and neutrons. Knoll and Ruska built the electron microscope…” and the list goes on.

1950s: “Hawks, Doves, and Various Avian Hybrids” fills in the story that I could only muse about in a post on Cold War Liberals. Will Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda reminds us that physicist and other politically and militarily engaged scientists during the Cold War cannot easily be pigeonholed into Hawks, Doves, Liberals, Pacifist, War Monger or other simple categories. By looking at Teller, Wheeler, Luis Alvarez and others, he underscores the importance of a nuanced understanding of how these actors navigated their contexts.

1953/1957: “A Note from the Future: Digital Computer Questionnaire (1953) & “What Does a Computer Look Like?” (1957)” is a wonderful reminder of what the past thought the future would look like. Looking at a questionnaire about how to plan for buying a computer, the post also reminds us how fleeting our own questions of knowledge and organization will be. My favorite question: “Is internal operation binary, decimal, or what?” Or what must have been a technical category, somewhere around hexidecimal.

(Source: )

1964: The Kitty Genovese Murder is the famous case in NYC in which a young woman was murdered while 38 neighbors stood by and did nothing. This post uses recent psychological research to explain why this could happen and to think about the concept “bystander effect.”

Today: “Something Completely Different” is the latest installment of Will Thomas’s annual review of scholarship in the history of physics. Along with highlighting various individual pieces of scholarship, Thomas reminds us that essay reviews often offer the best “bang for your buck.” They are long enough to be both thorough and entertaining.

Speaking of recent research, “Exploring Leeuwenhoek’s Legacy” points to a recent article on the abundance and diversity of protozoa. Published in International Microbiology, “Exploring Leeuwenhoek’s legacy: the abundance and diversity of protozoa” is interesting because it takes as its starting and ending point a comparison to Leeuwenhoek’s 17th-century efforts to describe protozoa. When was the last time a physics article worked so hard to link its findings to the work of Galileo or Newton?

What is a protozoa species (Source: Finlay & Esteban, “Exploring Leeuwenhoek’s legacy: the abundance and diversity of protozoa,” International Microbiology (2001), 128)

Well, that rounds out the posts for this edition of The Giant’s Shoulders. Thanks again to our contributors and to Skulls in the Stars for keeping this carnival going. And finally, stay tuned for next month’s carnival over at The Lay Scientist.

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Comment posted by Thony C. on 03/19 at 02:43 AM

Good job well done!

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